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Higher education is supposed to be a world in which true meritocracy reigns, where the best and brightest rise to the top by virtue of their talent, ability, and work ethic. This is even more true for graduate-level programs in which accepted students need to have already proved themselves capable during their prior studies (be that an undergraduate program or a different graduate-level one). And while all students face obstacles on their path of higher education, some will experience more than others—perhaps due to economics, competition, personal background, or even just bad luck.

But, for students with disabilities—both current students and prospective ones—there are a myriad of seen and unseen obstacles that stand in the way of their receiving the quality education that, relatively speaking, the rest of us are taking for granted.

Obstacles Seen and Not Seen

One of the fundamental changes from undergraduate to graduate school is that students are no longer covered by the same law governing K-12 and undergraduate education.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was renamed and reauthorized in 1990 after it had been initially passed as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. This reauthorization reaffirmed provisions and guidelines for equal educational access for people with disabilities up through receiving their college education. However, the IDEA, which is an entitlement law, does not cover graduate-level students, as these degrees are supplementary, and not considered as the educational right that K-12 and a bachelor’s degree are.

Graduate school is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law. The ADA, signed into law in 1990 and implemented in 1992, has done a lot good for Americans with disabilities, but it can fall short in this setting as it cannot cover the tasks specific to graduate education. As such, it falls on the universities and colleges themselves to effectively choose to do the right thing in regard to these students. So, as you can imagine under today’s higher education climate, it often falls on the students themselves to fight for and implement their own necessary accommodations. Students with disabilities in graduate programs have a whole second job in addition to their studies (or third job in addition to their studies and actual job), and that is to figure out what their current accommodations are, what they will need, and what changes will be needed in order for them to do something as simple as attend their classes and complete their coursework.

This pervades into the classroom itself as well. In speaking with Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a Distinguished Professor in the Clinical Psychology PsyD program at San Francisco, she highlighted a problem that is often unspoken of, and that is the issue of standardized tests. Most importantly, these tests are not available in Braille. To put it in Dr. Olkin’s own words, “The companies that publish tests will not make them available in Braille. They have not allowed this, because testing is about standardization, so they will not change the tests due to this philosophy. So, blind students can get held up in grad school in the assessment course, yet there is no reason why they couldn’t sit next to someone taking a normal test and take the test in Braille.” This is the kind of problem that a non-disabled person would never consider, and yet it presents a serious barrier of entry for achieving an advanced degree—or even entering a program—for the 1 million-plus legally blind Americans today.

And the above-mentioned is just one example, one obstacle of many that students with disabilities face most every day in most every higher education classroom across the country.


Another, and equally macro issue, is that there are many misconceptions about students with disabilities, and about how these students are currently being accommodated by their schools. The biggest of which, is, as mentioned above, the idea that the ADA itself solves many of the problems facing Americans with disabilities today, when that is not necessarily the case.

The truth is, it doesn’t. It helps, but it doesn’t solve everything.

The ADA, while admirable in its efforts, doesn’t help with the prejudice that students with disabilities face in their day-to-day experience, such as not getting internship and work placements due to assumptions based around their disability, that they won’t make a good professional for the same reason, or that they shouldn’t even be in a graduate-level program in the first place. These misconceptions get perpetuated by the able-bodied around them because of the assumptions that are made due to a lack of widespread disability education and the insistence of treating disability exclusively as medical pathology.

But there are changes we can make to alleviate these problems and shatter these misconceptions.

Changes We Can Make

So, the question has become: “What are achievable changes that can be made to make life easier for this subset of people?” When this question was posed to Dr. Olkin, she had some very interesting answers. The first of which was, “I would want textbook publishers to include disability as a part of human diversity, not pathology in textbooks…if it’s talked about at all.” This is a simple, yet fundamental change in the way disability is presented to the public—essentially working to take the Otherness out of those with disabilities and rendering it the same visibility we give race, sexuality, and gender.

Another achievable change would be the end of disability simulations. Simply put, disability simulations do not accurately or adequately simulate disability. In Dr. Olkin’s words, in reference to blindfolding a sighted person to simulate blindness, “All a blindfold is going to do is make you say, ‘Oh dear, it’s so hard to be blind.’ This is not the purpose of simulation.” And, of course, she’s right. This is absolutely not the intended purpose of a disability simulation, as it does nothing but engender temporary frustration, rather than adequately explain what life with that particular disability is like. And, unfortunately for the proponents of disability simulations, there is no way to do this, as the temporary nature of the simulation makes it something closer to a slumber party game than a valuable experience—basically, you can take off the blindfold, but a blind person just couldn’t choose to see. And so, by ending disability simulations, we end the misconceptions they perpetuate.

Instead, incorporating disability diversity training taught in classes can provide a richer experience. Currently, there is no requirement for disability training to be taught as part of diversity training, when it really ought to be at least three hours of such training in these classes and programs. The thought behind this is that even simple exposure is better than no exposure at all, and that by framing disability in this context, it reinforces the idea that it is part of diversity, not pathology.

In addition to the institutional changes mentioned above, there are other, more personal things that any person can do to help make student life for those with disabilities better than it is today, such as petitioning the school itself to hire and retain faculty with disabilities. If we are to treat disability as diversity, then we need to ensure representation among the faculty, just as we would for any other subset of people. The inclusion and representation of people with disabilities in this way is arguably the most important one within the educational setting, as it provides students with the appropriate context to understand the lives and obstacles of those with a disability much better than they would be able to in a different context. This would be akin to the validity given a cancer survivor discussing cancer or a rabbi discussing Judaism. There is inherent value in the contextual understanding and opinion of a person within these specific subsets, and the same is true for how disability studies are taught, and how disability is discussed in general in the collegiate setting.

There also just needs to be a more widespread encouragement of teaching and understanding of this perspective in higher education in general, but this will come when these more focused changes are implemented and colleges and universities at large stop seeing students with disabilities exclusively as some Other.

Next Steps

If you’re interested in learning more about disability awareness in higher education and in the psychology profession, you should read the work of Dr. Rhoda Olkin, including her books, What Psychotherapists Should Know About Disability, or Disability-Affirmative Therapy, or apply to study with her in our PsyD in Clinical Psychology Program in San Francisco. Dr. Olkin is a leading expert in this field, and we are more than proud to have her be a part of our CSPP faculty and we are hopeful that the changes she is trying to make in the world are understood and implemented and that higher education stops being a world of barriers for students with disabilities.

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